If this old car could talk

“If these walls could talk, the tales they would tell.” —Unknown

The old saying insinuating profound curiosity toward interesting stories old buildings might tell about things they had witnessed, if they only possessed communication skills, is not limited to just walls.

The same thought has no doubt been extended to a variety of objects. For instance, I’ve often thought, “If this old car could just talk …”

A few of the old cars for which I’ve been privileged to serve as temporary custodian have lived interesting lives, but the one with perhaps the most intriguing stories to tell might be one red 1957 Ford Thunderbird.

TBIrd column photos-after-sm
1991 photo of “one of 15” supercharged “D model” ’57 Thunderbirds after restoration. From left, your author and seller Leon Aldridge; “Little Bird” restoration guru then and now Gil Baumgartner; and buyer Amos Minter. One unique red 1957 Ford Thunderbird with stories to tell.

Owning and driving old cars is fun on many levels. However, one of the more fascinating aspects of the experience is prying into their history. From where did it come and how did it get here? What stories did it accumulate along the way?

Joe Greene in Bossier City, Louisiana, knew some of the red Thunderbird’s stories. When I first met Joe about 1983, he had owned it for 14 years. It already had a storied life by then, but the years to come would only add to one fascinating “auto” biography. Stories Joe passed on with the car included the one about where he found it in Virginia in the late 60s, about how the woman who owned it used it for drag racing, and that the car was gray although the data plate indicated it left the factory adorned in bright red.

Joe’s stories also included how he painted the car white, turned it to driver status, and enjoyed driving it for several years. A few years later after he and his family were settled in Bossier City at Barksdale Air Force Base as his last assignment in a 30-plus-year military career, Joe disassembled the car with plans for a full and accurate restoration.

This was when the old car’s story took a dramatic turn. By that time, factory invoices for the Little Birds were available via a Michigan T-Bird club that had acquired them from Ford Motor Company. Joe ordered the invoice for his car, not prepared for what he was bout to learn. The little red then gray, then white ‘Bird was one of 15 “special production” cars built January 29, 1957 equipped with “experimental” factory supercharged motors to promote the 1957 Daytona Beach race. According to the invoice, the one Joe owned was shipped to Heintzelman Ford in Daytona Beach, Florida, and displayed at the race by Ford Motor Company.

Still reeling from his discovery, Joe put the restoration on hold to accumulate the hard-to-find motor parts needed for such a rare and historically significant car. That “on hold” period lasted a few years before a deal was struck making me the car’s newest historian. The picture at the top of the page was made on the day in 1987 that it came to live with  me in Center, Texas.

Sorting through the boxes of parts and pieces that came with the body still mounted on a rolling chassis, I took the car a little farther down restoration road before ultimately deciding such an automobile would be worth more with a professional restoration. Gil Baumgartner in the San Francisco valley area of California, then and still today, considered to be the ‘55-‘57 Thunderbird restoration guru, was assigned the task. Two years and lots of dollars later, the skillfully restored piece of automotive history returned to Texas.

Family demands and a relocation left me without a place to keep or care for the jewel of Thunderbird history, and I passed ownership to a friend in Dallas who buys, sells, and collects the Little Birds. This is where the car remained, in climate controlled storage, for 17 years during which time it won every award Classic Thunderbird Club International bestows, and was featured in several magazines and hardback books.

The next owner sold it at auction in 2012 for a reported $235,000 at which time the super rare red Thunderbird migrated to Australia. As far as I know, it’s still down there.

Born in Dearborn, Michigan, in January of ’57 for display at the 1957 Daytona Beach race; up the East Coast to Virginia by 1969; west to Bossier City, Louisiana in the early 70s; to my custody in Center, Texas, in 1987; out to California in 1989 for restoration; to Dallas in 1991; sold to Australia in 2012. Where it resided between Dallas where it was sold in 2008, and the 2012 auction that took it to the continent down under, I don’t know. What is known about the car is fascinating enough, but imagine the still unknown tales the automobile might tell.

If we could talk, sadly, I would have to tell the red ‘Bird we lost our friend, Joe, in February of this year. Beyond that, we would likely agree the sum the ‘Bird fetched in 2012 would have been a nice nest egg in my IRA and maybe have sent me to Australia for a vacation, too—that is, if this old car could talk.

Aldridge columns are also published in the Center, Texas, Light and Champion (http://www.lightandchampion.com) and the Mount Pleasant, Texas, Tribune newspapers (http://www.tribnow.com).

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